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The guardian on the verge: a study of conscious and unconscious dynamics August 1991

Author’s note: This is a chapter from the larger work of which my book Feeling and Personhood is an extract.

Conscious and unconscious

The processes that sustain unconsciousness

The contents of personal unconsciousness

The contents of non-personal unconsciousness

The guardian on the verge

Threshold and verge

Conscious markers of unconscious contents

Conscious and unconscious

We now come to the psyche’s great paradox. It knows what it doesn’t know of. It is conscious, when it wakes from dreamless sleep, that it has been totally unconscious. It is conscious, when awake, that it is only partly conscious, and that there is a great deal within it and beyond it that is unconscious. Indeed, it is relatively conscious, at all waking times, to a greater or much lesser or minimal degree, of its relative unconsciousness.

This last point is rather an important one. It affirms that it is impossible for a psyche, when conscious, to be unconscious of the fact and of the extent of its own unconsciousness. It is both a logical and a substantial point that consciousness necessarily includes some cognisance, however marginal, of what is not within it. This means that there is always coded within it some surrogate or marker of this ‘what is not within it’. In its dusty, relatively unused corners lie the rusty keys to its own extension, the transcendence of its current limits.

The most radical thesis on this point is that there is, somehow or other, coded or indexed within any and every current field of consciousness everything that is not within it.

The conscious-of-the-unconscious paradox is particularly acute at the verge between the two. Suppose I have forgotten a name which I know that I know. I stand at the edge trying to summon up the forgotten name: I know what I am looking for but I don’t know exactly what it is. I have got in consciousness some imaginal marker or trace, a nonverbal index entry, which makes me know that I know the name, and which I broadcast at the verge. When the name crosses the verge it joins its marker and I say ‘Of course’.

But let’s follow the radical thesis and consider the case in which I have got in consciousness imaginal markers of something I have never known, which no-one anywhere else at any time has ever known, and I have no overt knowledge that I don’t know it. This will naturally make the markers obscure, so much so that I may well assert that for all practical purposes they are not anywhere in my consciousness. Well, the radical thesis insists that they are there, this side of the verge, supraliminal not subliminal. Such markers are necessarily imaginal, in image not verbal form, since they relate to content that is prior to any explicit form of human, cultural symbolism. They constitute part of a tacit, universal imaginal language in the psyche that is presupposed by any subsequent manifest predication.

A somewhat intermediate and instructive case is any small child starting to acquire its mother tongue. It doesn’t overtly know the grammar of the language, but it doesn’t have to be taught it, for the imaginal forms or markers of any grammar are readily accessible somewhere within its field of consciousness, and to these markers actual grammatical forms, evident in the family’s use of language, readily attach themselves. This has a parallel in Chomsky’s view that the overall framework of universal grammar is genetically inbuilt in all humans. Every child knows what the linguistic options are within this framework, but has to discover by experience which particular set of options its mother tongue has selected (Chomsky, 1985). But once people have learnt one explicit language and used it a lot in reflective, conceptual ways, they seem to lose the knack of effortlessly attaching a spoken language to imaginal markers, and so make heavier weather of learning a second language.

It is possible to conceptualise some of the main types of unconsciousness and generate a list something like the following. The first distinction is between the processes whereby something is made or kept unconscious, and the content of unconsciousness. And with regard to the content of unconsciousness, we can distinguish between personal unconsciousness and non-personal unconsciousness.

The processes that sustain unconsciousness

I have no idea what the full range of these processes is, or rather I should say I am very busy not noticing what they all are doing. For all practical purposes, at the time of their operation, they are unconscious. Here are some of the more obvious ones.

1. Inattention. This is the effect of everyday selective attention. For example, there may be something in my visual field which is distinct and possible to see, but I am not aware of it because I am attending closely to something else. Another example, I may not attend to what is outside the range of my perceiving, that is, over the horizon, round the next corner, beyond earshot. Or again, the contents of my accessible memory are mostly out of consciousness, because I am busy attending to what is going on in present time and have no need or wish to recall them.

More radically, I simply do not attend to what transcends the process of sense perception. I unawarely disattend from what happens at and beyond its edge, where other realities can loom up in the mist of unknowing. I am hypnotised and seduced by sense perception, and the bits of introspection that go with it, into systematic inattention to every other mode of knowing.

Selective attention may be immediately due to ego-bound preoccupation – with sense perception and with everyday concerns and interests. Beyond that it is the result of an embedded cultural framework of beliefs acquired early in life which desensitise people so that they don’t notice what the framework has no concepts for. The vast inattention that results from these two processes may well be the everyday way to sustain unconsciousness. But it will be interwoven with other items below.

2. Thresholds. Certain impressions have too low or too high energy frequencies to reach consciousness; or, to put it the other way round, the current structures of consciousness are unable to detect them and only operate within a certain band. Obvious examples here are sensory thresholds which screen out infrared and ultraviolet, subsonic and supersonic, bodily processes and so on; psychic thresholds which screen out extrasensory impressions; and spiritual thresholds which cut off cosmic consciousness. Psychic and spiritual thresholds can, it seems, be altered by appropriate training and inward opening.

It is an open question whether restrictive thresholds of a psychic and spiritual kind are in some sense innate and developmental, or whether they are acquired by systematic and congealed inattention (plus identification, see below), or whether they are a mixture of the innate and the acquired. I take the view that there is a significant acquired component.

As well as thresholds which restrict vertically the band of frequencies within which I am conscious, there are also those that determine the horizontal extent of my consciousness within any given band or form of consciousness. Within sense perception acuity of sight and hearing will only extend so far. Within two-valued logical thinking there is a limit to what I can conceive. The same kind of open question applies here too. Where there is a limited range of non-perceptual forms of consciousness, is this innate and a developmental if only temporary limit, or is it acquired, or both?

3. Identification. If I identify fully with the current explicit structure or process of consciousness, I am unaware that I am doing it, since I have abandoned any viewpoint that would give me such cognisance. This also means I cannot locate the boundaries of that structure or process, which in turn means that I sustain in unconsciousness everything beyond those boundaries. If my face is right down in the pea soup, I cannot see it there, and have lost sight of the rim of the soup bowl and of what is beyond it on the table. Thus when I identify with the subject-object split, as I have described in earlier chapters, I have no awareness that I am doing so and as a result my feeling of participation with the world, and the deeper processes of the imaginal mind in perception, recede into unconsciousness.

Of course, the conscious-of-the-unconscious paradox means that such identification can never fully sustain unconsciousness, since any explicit structure of consciousness will always contain markers of what is beyond it. Sooner or later the markers will disconcert me enough to start my disidentifying, and moving onto some wider and deeper structure.

Inattention, thresholds and identification – in interaction – are perhaps the three primary factors that sustain unconsciousness.

4. Acute forgetting. I cannot recall something when I know perfectly well that I have not really forgotten it. This is temporary lapse of memory, which recovers after a pause, or after turning attention to other things.

5. Chronic forgetting. I cannot recall what I used to know, and the memory loss appears to be permanent. However, I may still be able to recognise what I have thus forgotten when I see it again. If I have to learn it all again, I may learn it significantly faster than I did the first time. And I may be able to recall it under hypnosis. So there are still significant traces or markers left.

6. Repression. Certain emotions, images, ideas and impulses that have entered consciousness I forcibly push down into unconsciousness because they are too threatening to my precarious and beleaguered sense of identity. This process is one that particularly occurs during and after traumatic events in infancy and childhood. It is not only the emotions and images to do with trauma that can be repressed, but some elements of psychic heredity (see below), and also early manifestations of psychic and spiritual capacity where these are met with adult hostility and rejection.

7. Defence mechanisms. If all the other defence mechanisms – of projection, denial, displacement, reaction formation, rationalization, undoing, regression – are seen as elaborations or variants of repression, that is, as ways of pushing certain states out of consciousness, then they belong in this list of processes that sustain unconsciousness.

8. Blocking. Whereas repression pushes out of consciousness something that is already in it, blocking will not let into consciousness something that has never entered it but is ripe to emerge within it. This especially applies to formative potentials – to do, for example, with psychic and spiritual capacities – whose time for overt manifestation and development has come, but whose emergence into consciousness may be defensively resisted.

The contents of personal unconsciousness

This list contains only those contents that are particularly to do with the individual psyche and its inner life.

1. The processes that sustain unconsciousness. All of the processes given above are also themselves unconscious, part of the content of unconsciousness. The effects of some of them may be obvious within my consciousness, but the doing of them appears to be unconscious. I seem not to be aware of my inattending, of my thresholding, of my identifiying with the current structures of consciousness, of my forgetting at the very moment of forgetting, of my repressing and blocking. These things apparently operate outside my awareness of what I am up to. This raises a key question which I will deal with in a later section: what keeps these processes so seemingly unconscious?

2. Bodily processes and physical heredity. We are not conscious of most bodily processes, at least when they are working normally, nor of the genetic base of the body, nor of the effect of this on our conscious structures, nor of our physical drives when they are dormant.

3. Body-mind processes. We are not conscious of how we move the body, fall asleep, wake up, alter the breathing rate. We are certainly conscious of these things going on, but not of how they go on.

4. Accessible memory images. What I am able to remember but am not needing or choosing to remember.

5. Inaccessible memory images. These include whatever a person has acutely or chronically forgotten.

6. Subtle bodies. Various other non-physical sheaths of consciousness may be totally unconscious, including the immediate subtle sheath interpenetrating the physical body with its chakras, and its vital energy – variously called mana, prana, chi, etc.

7. Psychic heredity. Whether you explain it in terms of reincarnation, or better still, in terms of resonant affinity with a line of people who lived in earlier times, we are born, I believe, with congenital behaviour tendencies, the samskara skandhas of Buddhist psychology. These go beyond the effects of physical heredity and are a dispositional legacy of our psychic ancestors. We are not conscious of their origins, of their nature (until some work is done on them) and of how and where they are deposited in the psyche.

8. Repressed material. This includes emotions, images, ideas and impulses that have entered consciousness but have been forcibly pushed out into unconsciousness because they are too threatening to the individual’s precarious and beleaguered sense of identity. This covers childhood trauma and birth and intrauterine trauma; the participatory modes of the psyche that lead to too much vulnerability; maybe some elements of psychic heredity; early manifestations of extrasensory and spiritual capacity where these meet with adult hostility.

9. Deep entelechy. All the formative potentials of the psyche – beyond physical and psychic heredity and more basic than either – that have not yet emerged as explicit structures of consciousness are unconscious. Entelechy contains the developmental seeds of the psyche that have not been actualized. For the foetus the entelechy will include all aspects of bodily, psychological, social, psychic and spiritual development. Entelechy is the unconscious, enfolded, latent, promise of the psyche, its potential stages of unfoldment. For a similar account of entelechy see Houston (1987: 31-32); see also Wilber’s account of the ground-unconscious as a developmental concept, (1990: 105).

10. Ripe entelechy. Those formative potentials that have matured in the unconscious and are ready to emerge into explicit conscious states. Ripe entelechy will also deliver into consciousness prompts to individuate or participate or conservate or innovate.

11. Blocked entelechy. This includes potentials which have not yet been actualised, have not emerged as explicit structures in consciousness, and are ripe for emergence for their time has come, but they are blocked, held down in unconsciousness and resisted.

12. Transpersonal archetype. Whereas the entelechy is human potential enfolded and embedded deep within the psyche, the transpersonal archetype, the divine form of the manifest person, dwells in the elevated subtle domains. Archetype calls to entelechy, entelechy aspires to archetype. Transcendental archetype seeds the immanent entelechy in the psyche and beckons it to unfold the developmental stages of the person.

The contents of non-personal unconsciousness

These items go beyond and outside the structure and dynamics of the individual psyche into wider states and spaces. For a pareallel account, see the researches of Grof (Grof, 1976, 1988).

1. Phylogenetic heritage. The unconscious repository of phylogenetic history, a recapitulation of the evolution of all life forms, from the simple to the complex, from the remote past to the present. Its conscious outcrop is in terms of physical reflexes and instincts and unlearned instinctive behaviour.

2. Racial memory. The unconscious respository of family, cultural and racial history that is beyond personal memory and learning.

3. Mythic images. This is an offshoot of racial memory and refers to relatively independent image structures that condense within them the collective experience of the race with regard to basic aspects of human life. They can be as confused, contradictory and misleading as human experience itself. They are quite other than transpersonal archetypes (see above) or cosmic archetypes (see below). For a clear untangling of the confusion Jung makes between myth and archetype see Wilber (1990: 255-257).

4. Unnoticed energies and realities. These include other realities and aspects of this reality that are unnoticed because of some one or more of the processes that sustain unconsciousness. This item covers a huge field encompassing subtle aspects of this reality, extended spatio-temporal accounts of it, psyche-matter interactions, and all sorts of different content in other realities (see Grof, 1976, 1988). It overlaps with the next three items.

5. The recently deceased. Those who have recently died are relatively close to earthly conditions and can mingle their activities with humans. Their influence can range from the destructive and malicious, to the addictive and indulgent, to the misleading and mischievous, to the helpful and supportive, to the protective and guiding.

6. Presences. These are high-raised souls in other and exalted dimensions of being who can exert an inspirational and transformative influence upon humans.

7. Cosmic archetypes. These are the great powers of creation, the first manifest dynamic forms which emanate the patterns for all subsequent creation. See Plato, Philo, Plotinus, St. Augustine, Hindu-Buddhist systems, Grof, Wilber.

The guardian on the verge

There is a quite fundamental question which I raised above at the end of the first item in the personal contents of unconsciousness. This item asserted that the various processes that sustain unconsciousness – inattention, thresholds, identification, forgetting, repression and so on – are themselves unconscious, part of the contents of unconsciousness. If this is so, the key question arises: What extra process sustains all these processes in unconsciousness? If it is another unconscious process, then we embark an an infinite regress of processes which by definition are forever inaccessible to consciousness; and this seems to be inherently implausible.

The point has long been made that repression is an unconscious process but is not itself repressed. But what keeps it, and the whole family of such processes, unconscious? The answer takes us to the heart of the conscious-of-the-unconscious paradox. What keeps unconscious the processes that sustain unconsciousness, I believe, is (1) a conscious anxiety about being overwhelmed by its contents and (2) a conscious choice not to notice what I am doing to keep them at bay.

In other words, there is a systematic self-delusion based on fear operating at the verge of unconsciousness, and both the act of self-delusion and the fear are supraliminal, within the margins of consciousness. This is a ring-pass-not which I choose, at the fringe of my awareness, to set up out of anxiety – so as to make it seem that my various devices for sustaining unconsciousness are subliminal. I choose, as it were, to convince myself that these devices are unconscious when they clearly are not. My self-delusion thus sets up a new illusory verge, throwing into apparent unconsciousness the processes, such as repression, that sustain, at a more basic verge, the real unconsciousness. Nevertheless, though only apparent and illusory, this new verge becomes the de facto one.

This is the guardian on the verge, not beyond the fringe, but visible and identifiable at the margins of awareness. It is not itself an unconscious defence mechanism, an unconscious act of inattention, but a conscious choice to delude myself that I am unaware of just such processes. It is a quite unique, and paradoxical, phenomenon in the dynamics of consciousness. And it is therefore a quite unique key.

For I can at any time reverse the choice to sustain the guardian in place, dismiss it and remove my self-delusion. I can choose, instead, to live with the anxiety of being overwhelmed and notice all the devices I am using to cope with it. The processes that sustain unconsciousness thus become conscious as redundant habits above the deeper verge which they set up, and I can start to modify and dismantle them, and shift that verge. A deep process of transformation and liberation begins.

In his early theory in the 1890s, Freud’s view was that anxiety is a product of repressed libido. Thirty years later, he reversed this to the view that anxiety leads to repression; and repression, he held, was unconscious but not itself repressed. What he never explained was how conscious anxiety can lead to non-repressed but unconscious repression. Nor has anyone else ever explained it as far as I can see. This may be because conscious self-delusion of the guardianship kind is a particularly kind of addictive choice to make. And because it is an addiction which may be particularly strong in psychologists and psychotherapists who spend a lot of time in thought and practice at the verge where the guardian stands.

Figure 50 The guardian on the verge

If we bring the whole business out into the open, the sequence of events seems to be something like this, although in reality it is not likely to be a temporal sequence but more a concurrent pat-a-cake, like a bunch of hands all slotted on top of each other at the same time. First, the current field of consciousness is full of markers of what is not in it, markers of the contents of unconsciousness. Second, these markers start to draw to themselves the unconscious contents with which they resonate. Third, these contents become imminently subliminal, they draw close just beyond the verge of consciousness, with a foreshadowing rumble at the verge. Fourth, this looming up, the feeling that the markers are about to be joined by one knows not what, generates conscious anxiety. Fifth, a conscious choice is made out of this anxiety to delude oneself that one has no awareness of the various devices being used to keep what is looming up unconscious. This fifth event, or pat-a-cake layer, is the weirdest: all in one go you consciously delude yourself that you are unconscious – when you are not – of processes you are using to sustain systematic unconsciousness. This is the real heart of maya.

Figure 50 depicts the guardian. The triangle in the darker line is consciousness, the lower layer of this being where the guardian stands, within consciousness but at the verge of unconsciousness, performing its curious act of chosen self-delusion.

The guardian will start work very early on, at foetal or infantile, pre-verbal stages, so its degree of choice and consciousness at that time may be highly attenuated, low-level, marginal – but the inherent logic of the whole situation requires that it is unmistakably supraliminal. Later in life its degree of choice and consciousness may be increased in order to keep it effective in its elected role, with post-verbal conceptual elements transferred into it.

Threshold and verge

I used these two separate terms in order to avoid confusing two different concepts. ‘Threshold’ is the term I use to designate what may be built-in restrictions as to what can enter a particular form of consciousness. Sensory thresholds are certainly built in, it seems, to the structure of the nervous system. And psychic and spiritual thresholds may proceed from the entelechy as part of a developmental phase and so in that sense they may also built in, even if later they can be altered by self-development.

A vertical threshold determines, for example, what is above or below the range of human hearing. A horizontal threshold determines the extent of hearing within its band – for example the distance beyond which I cannot hear certain sounds.

‘Verge’ is the term I use to designate the boundary to consciousness that is set up by all kinds of processes such as selective inattention, identification, forgetting, repression, blocking, including thresholds, and including the guardian’s self-delusion. So ‘verge’ is the inclusive, generic term, of which ‘threshold’ is a species; and there is the de facto verge of the guardian and a deeper one set up by the processes the guardian deludes itself about.

Conscious markers of unconscious contents

I wish now to look at some of the different sorts of conscious markers of unconscious contents. But first I will recapitulate the basic argument derived from the conscious-of-the-unconscious paradox.

Any field of human consciousness – and I cannot speak for horses and guerillas or any other non-human creature – knows that it is bounded, knows – behind the self-delusion of the guardian – what these boundaries are, and knows that there is something which it does not know beyond those boundaries. This is because there are always things within the field of consciousness which indicate what is beyond it. I have called these things markers.

I have suggested the radical view that any current field of consciousness contains markers of everything that it excludes. This is in line with a general principle that the whole is coded and represented in each of its parts. So though I am only conscious of a small part of the whole universe of being, within my conscious field I have access to markers of all of it.

But what sorts of markers are there? Well. one important class is provided by boundaries, because boudaries themselves are markers.

Thus a very obvious sort of marker is a perceptual limit, that is, as far as the eyes can see, the ears can hear, the nose can smell. For visual perception this sort of marker is the horizon and what abuts it, all of which together is a marker telling us that there is more sky and land beyond it, and tell us something about what kind of sky and land there is likely to be immediately beyond it.

Another obvious one is the boundary of any area of explicit propositional knowledge. If I marshal all I know, however little, about bee-keeping, then the restrictions of this will clearly indicate the broad categories of what it is I don’t know.

These first two examples are boundary markers within a certain form of field such as perception or propositional knowledge. But there is another much less obvious sort of boundary marker, and that is the edge of a field as such. Take the visual field. That has an edge, not the limit of what I can see out there in the world, but the actual experiential edge of the field where it blurs out into seeming nothingness. This experiential edge is a spatial edge, but it is not in the space of the world, since there is nowhere in the world you can locate it. Since, however, it is clearly spatial it must be an edge between two different kinds of space, two different kinds of world. It is in short a marker of another world.

This is a very disconcerting marker and one that the guardian will very quickly delude itself about. It will insist that it is not conscious of systematically disattending from it when it knows perfectly well it is doing that very thing out of great anxiety. For if it does not so disattend, goodness knows what will tumble over the edge into consciousness.

Another disconcerting marker is at the edge of imagination, when it converts into supersensory perception, either of this reality beyond the range of one’s ordinary perception, or of quite other realities. The guardian will likewise pretend it is not aware of practising selective inattention, so that it gets nowhere near this sort of edge.

But it is not just boundaries within fields and boundaries of fields that are markers. It is the very central content of fields that are markers. Thus the distinctive patterns within perceptual imagery are markers, that is, the patterns and images just as such, without words and concepts and propositional beliefs attached to them. These are the patterns, which, when we do attach words and concepts, we call sun or moon or tree or river or mountain As patterns and images pure and simple they designate the dynamic archetypes in an unknown dimension that generate them. They mark and bear witness to the great unseen powers and principalities of their continuous creation.

With this central mass of markers, the guardian has to be very busy. One main device is to identify so strongly with the subject-object split inherent in the use of language that I no longer see the perceptual field as a set of images I am involved in generating, but as something given out there. I set up outside it an alienated little ego, which replaces the real I who is a participant in the original generation of the world, and the field itself becomes an opaque set of closed things, instead of a transparent set of radiant markers of archetypal origins.

Then I plaster over the perceptual field the concepts and elaborate belief-systems that derive from the cultural use of language. I embed these concepts and belief-systems so deeply into the very act of perceiving that they totally obscure the meaning of the field per se, that is, as a set of markers of the powers of creation. Thus selective inattention is sustained by the distracted use of language and conceptualisation. When combined with identification, the guardian has converted a central throng of markers of the great unknown into a debased and banal coinage for exchange with other alienated souls.

But there is no avoiding the call of the unknown, for the general concepts and conceptual systems that come with the use of language are the most obvious and unavoidable markers of all. Concepts spawn their polar counterparts, so concepts that classify the limited and familiar immediately generate their polar terms, which are the great abstract markers of any language. The concept of the limited yields the concept of the unlimited, and so it goes from known to unknown, consciousness to unconsciousness, familiar to unfamiliar. Concepts designate classes, and classes of classess, and classes of classes of classes, and we are launched into handling infinite sets and theories of infinity – which are used to redefine the parameters of the finite. Terms like ‘all’, ‘everything’ are, as markers, latent and limitless cornucopiae. And so it goes on.

In our personal psychology, when we repress into unconsciousness painful trauma of the past, we set up markers of the repressed material by symbolically re-enacting it in our current adult behaviour. In short, just about wherever we look within the field of consciousness its contents are constituted by markers of the contents of unconsciousness. The invitation to self-transfiguration is compendious.